From Vincent Van Gogh onward to Robin Williams, there is a fallacy in culture that all geniuses must suffer. Whether through addiction or mental illness, legions of fans think their favorite artist is great specifically because of the problems that befall him or her. Frank, the new comedy about a brilliant eccentric musician, is an angry retort to this misguided idea. It starts as a pleasant screwball comedy, only to view its subject with pity and sadness. Working from a screenplay by Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan, director Lenny Abrahamson successfully disabuses the audience from this cruel notion.
Our entry point is Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), a thirty-ish loser who lives in an English seaside town and dreams of becoming a successful songwriter. One evening he notices the police as they struggle to pull a naked, raving madman from the beach. The madman was the keyboardist for the band Soronprfbs — don’t bother pronouncing it — and the band’s manager Don (Scoot McNairy) lets Jon play a gig that night. The band’s frontman, Frank, stuns Jon: not only is he captivating, he has a giant paper mache head on his head, one with a look that’s somewhere between friendly and menacing. The show is terrible, yet Frank and Don recruit Jon to help record their new album.
Abrahamson spends the plurality of his film on the recording sessions, set in an isolated cabin on an island. Along with Frank and a pouty French guitarist, the other major creative force is Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), who mostly plays the theremin. Frank goes through the usual creative tensions and rivalries, albeit in a meandering way, and tweaks them through Frank’s eccentricities. As for the music itself, it’s experimental psych-rock — the sort of stuff that might get the “Eureka!” treatment on his very website — and Abrahamson makes the shrewd choice to never play a full song. These are no actual prodigies here, yet there is the suggestion of them through the indie rock equivalent of smoke and mirrors.
Optimistic and a little aloof, Frank is the sort of musician who has more creativity than focus. He cannot see that Jon is essentially a fraud, although Clara does immediately. Gyllenhaal’s performance is full of sexual hostility, and her pervasive hatred of Jon becomes a terrific running gag. The genius of the script is how our sympathies flip from Jon to Clara: he’s no musician, he’s an automaton who can play three chords.
The character of Frank is based on Frank Sidebottom, a real guy with a similar giant fake head, and the script is slow to develop him as a character. Michael Fassbender plays the titular hero in a brilliant performance, yet the film is set up so that his identity is a surprise. Still, his work is unlike anything the actor has done before. Through the mask, Fassbender communicates whimsy, grief, and yes, even genius. After a mix of quiet confessions and outlandish behavior, the plot finally kicks into gear: Jon gamed social media so that the band has a slot at SXSW, and it is around this time that Frank becomes something else entirely.
It is entirely possible, even understandable, that some will leave Frank feeling cheated. For its last half hour, there is scarce any comedy, and the implications of its climax are kind of depressing. But because it is from Jon’s perspective, there are two concurrent epiphanies here that we hardly see in movies. The first is that maturity often arrives with the realization that you’re not so special. The second is that suffering stymies creativity, and not the other way around. Frank ends with a mostly-realized musical performance. It is carefully edited, and demands close attention. Watch who starts to play, and when. In front of and behind the camera, every choice is the correct one, and what is left out is as important as what is included. As musicians do for many great pop songs, Frank takes a simple phrase and contorts it until it has meaning, and even power. I don’t know how they do it; none of us ever will.